A Dark Day for Human Rights: North Korea’s Appalling and Undeniable Record on Religious Freedom

A mural in Wonsan, North Korea depicting Kim Il Sung (User yeowatzup, Flickr Commons) Last month, North Korea celebrated the 103rd birthday of its founding father, Kim Il Sung. The so-called “Day of the Sun” is a compulsory public holiday for North Koreans, another opportunity to proclaim their unquestioning devotion and obedience to “Kim and country.” There are parades, sporting events, artistic performances, and other observances full of pomp and circumstance. Yet it is hard to imagine ordinary North Koreans truly celebrating. After all, the country is one of the worst violators of human rights in the world. Despite its resplendent name, the holiday ironically comes at a time when the status of such rights, including the right to religious freedom, is at its darkest and gravest.

Instead of genuine freedom of religion or belief, the only faith practice allowed in North Korea is the bizarre, quasi-religious hero worship known as Kimilsungism, or Juche. This “belief system”stems from the cult of personality surrounding Kim Il Sung and the entire Kim family, and supplants any and all meaningful freedom of religious thought, conscience, and practice. Schoolchildren are taught absolute reverence for the Kim family. Workers are expected to openly demonstrate their veneration for the regime on the job. And the entire population is bombarded with propaganda campaigns disseminated widely by state-run media. Such campaigns not only deify the Kim family but also denigrate religion.

North Koreans who dare to practice an alternate faith in secret risk arrest, torture, imprisonment, and even execution if they are caught. Those believed to have been in contact with South Koreans or foreign missionaries are at a greater danger of persecution. Life is even more perilous for those who manage to escape to China but are then forcibly repatriated by the Chinese government. Though it persecutes practitioners of all faiths, the North Korean government despises Christians the most. It associates Christianity with the United States and with Western ideology more generally, and considers them the purveyors of all things evil.

Religious believers and their families caught by the Kim regime are sent to North Korea’s notorious penal labor camps. Some estimates put the number of those incarcerated for religious activity in the tens of thousands. The full assortment of atrocities and other human rights abuses committed by North Korea was unveiled to the world in a 2014 report by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea (COI). The COI’s comprehensive and thorough review found compelling and incontrovertible evidence of systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations rivaling any horror story: beatings, torture, starvation, forced abortions and infanticide, sexual violence, and still other forms of inhumane treatment.

The COI’s report brought to light what many have suspected all along—that North Korea’s violations of religious freedom are unparalleled. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), has reported on North Korea and labeled it a “country of particular concern”since 2001. This designation, which the U.S. State Department also has bestowed on North Korea since 2001, is a formal way for the U.S. government to categorize countries responsible for particularly severe violations of religious freedom that are systematic, ongoing, and egregious.

USCIRF issued two standalone reports, in 2005 and 2008, that drew attention to North Korea’s abysmal human rights record. The 2005 report, Thank You Father Kim Il Sung: Eyewitness Accounts of Severe Violations of Freedom of Thought, Conscience, and Religion in North Korea, presents the testimony of 40 former North Korean citizens who were interviewed extensively about the state of religious freedom in the country. The 2008 report, A Prison Without Bars: Refugee and Defector Testimonies of Severe Violations of Freedom of Religion or Belief in North Korea, offers evidence of the grave situation facing North Korean asylum-seekers who have been forcibly repatriated back to North Korea from China. (USCIRF’s 2015 report on North Korea is now available in both English and Korean.)

Over the years, the number and depth of similar studies has only grown as more and more North Koreans share their stories. A recent letter sent by a group of parliamentarians from 12 different countries, ranging from Brazil to Pakistan to the United Kingdom, urged North Korea to reform its system. Despite intensifying international scrutiny and growing proof of its abysmal human rights record, North Korea continues to rebuff criticism. Last year, the Kim regime responded to the COI’s findings by issuing its own report, which stated, in part, that “In [North Korea] everybody is fully provided with the rights to choose and follow their own religion and thought according to their own free will.”Nothing could be further from the truth.

Without a doubt, the evidence is mounting and the case is undeniable: North Korea may pay lip service to the rights and freedoms of its people, but its leaders are fooling no one but themselves. In this context, this year’s Day of the Sun in celebration of the 103rd birthday of Kim Il Sung makes a surreal and unintended kind of sense. What better way to celebrate the atrocities committed against its own people than to pay tribute to the man who started it all? But in reality, without any meaningful access to human rights, including the right to freely practice a faith of their own choosing, North Koreans have very little to celebrate.


Disclaimer: This paper was prepared and written in the author’s personal capacity. The views expressed herein are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or stance of USCIRF.